When people say nothing

In another post https://distillinggrief.com/2023/05/06/what-do-i-say/ I explain some points about how to speak to those grieving, in this post I address how to understand and accept those who can’t say anything. 

Let’s face it; given a chance, people often take the easiest path. Perhaps part of our resentment of grief is rooted in the fact that we have be given no choice, that there is no easy path through this place we find ourselves in. 

It’s common that in hard situations many people will say nothing after you suffer an important loss. That lack of comment can make you angry, because surely people should say something shouldn’t they? Perhaps our expectations are too high; perhaps our understanding of their preparation and capacity for empathy and compassion is too presumptive.

Several factors play into our reaction to these scenarios of silence, the fundamental one is that the shock and pain of grief makes us extremely sensitive, it exposes our nerves. We easily find anger in early grief, and we look for places to direct and focus our anger. Often the person who says nothing is a logical target for our anger, and so we hold their silence against them. Doors close, and anger can nail them shut from either side.

Another factor is that people, in general, are not prepared to talk about loss because it’s intimate and there are too few answers. We initially see loss of a loved one as something complex that we can’t comprehend, or perhaps we hoped irrationally to avoid. It’s just too easy to come to resent those who can choose to avoid the hard parts of life that we are slogging through.

A common excuse is that they just didn’t know what to say, or they “didn’t want to make it worse”. The reality is that nothing is always the wrong thing to say, and even saying the wrong thing you are unlikely to cause more damage or make it worse.

People attend visitations without directly addressing the death, or even the life. We call it a “celebration of life” and they still remain mute and unspeaking because they don’t know what to say, no one has ever taught them how to deal with loss. They come for the food and drinks, and hope for light discussions with easy answers or talk about the weather. Again, it’s human nature to step around the hard parts.

Once we are some weeks clear of the mechanics of a funeral, those who have not yet spoken have “escaped” and only in rare cases will they break their silence. So, if they break their silence, give them a break and forgive them without need to discuss it. As they say: Better late than never.

The ones that still bother you, take the lead, be the person who breaks the silence. Do it for your comfort, not theirs. Months after our son died, I literally chased down a man who had been our neighbor. When I saw him in a parking lot, he turned away to avoid crossing paths with me. My comment when I caught up was simply “We were neighbors, we live in the same community, we belong to the same yacht club, and I understand that you don’t know what to say or how to say it, so how about we just share a hug so we can be comfortable when we next see each other?” After that hug we spoke for half an hour, we comfortably shared social space and conversations easily.

I think our hypersensitivity to others through grief, our seeking of points to place anger is all very natural, but well worth resolving so we can become more comfortable and less angry. But I think that we are right to allow ourselves disappointment rather than anger, and if we wish to we can educate and lead by example.

In some cases of silence, I have discovered that those people who don’t know what to say have had a special relationship with the lost loved one. Their loss may be deeper than our understanding, because they had a deeper relationship than we understood them to have. In grief, we become archeologists of the web of love that was shared with the one we lost, and we may be surprised or even shocked at how deeply others loved our lost loved one.

We humans, in general, feel vulnerable in loss. We distrust because we feel weakened and exposed. We expect that our loss will attract support, not drive people away. But any conversation during grief is a conversation about love lost. Men especially are reticent to engage, share a tear, or discuss feelings about love. If we can’t talk about it, grief becomes a windowless silo of loneliness.

Friends or family who can’t reach out might be friends or family at risk, so please try to find them instead of judging them. Knowing that you are strong enough to reach out will make it easier for them to open the door that should have never closed on them, the door that they should have kept open with you.

Last point is friends. Most of our friends in life are social and great fun. They signed on for that shallow part of life, not this hard part. A minority of friends, after loss, will remain or become worthy of seeing your scars, of a deep understanding of how you feel, how you think. You will be less likely to be invited to parties, your presence will often shape the party until some long time after the loss. If you’re lucky, as we were, several friends will become your new best friends and come to know you better than ever.  Often those are the friends who have experienced loss already in life, friends who understand the finite and fragile nature of life and the inevitability of even an untimely death. 

Grief changes you, you must choose how that change redefines you, you choose who you will become, you choose what and who you will love. Loss has changed your view, it has created a point where you must pivot, you must change, and you will be different.

Develop the wisdom to choose less anger and you will be better able to change positively through grief, become angry and you will diminish yourself in ways that your lost loved one would never respect you for.

Grief is the final responsibility for having loved someone, so grieve with love.

The scars of grief

I have a fine line on my face, a barely visible scar from the corner of my left eye to the middle of my cheek, a surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. A brilliant surgeon and technology left me as close to perfect as possible while removing the risk of malignancy.

Grief wounds us, grief will leave our souls scarred, and grief will change us. These are absolutes that cannot be denied without adding danger to your grief.

I see anger in grief as a cancer of the soul. Anger is seen in the same light as that malignant melanoma that would have threatened and ended my life if I had not accepted that some pain, some discomfort, some healing, and a scar was a small price to pay for life. To heal safely, I needed to be hurt more than a simple biopsy.

Grief hurts, it’s a huge wound that we didn’t want to see coming. How we turn that hurt to safety and comfort is how we transition from being wounded to being healed, because a scar is a wound that has healed as well as it can be healed, but a wound unhealed will leave our soul broken and subject to more damage, more scarring, and prone to the cancer of anger and infection.

I spoke to my late parents weekly or more often. Twice a year, I would make a particularly difficult call to them on the birthday of younger brother and on the anniversary of his suicide. They never healed from that loss, and I compassionately understood and accepted that. So twice a year, I helped them rip open the wound and drain some of their anger.

They moved away a couple of years after Mike’s suicide to be closer to our sister, but also to find a place where nobody knew them, where they could mingle with new friends without ever mentioning or discussing that they had lost a son to suicide. Their peace was found in denial, but that denial haunted their lives.

Before they moved, my mother suffered a significant stroke one night. She refused to go to the hospital, she bullied y father and controlled the actions and news and we were kept unaware until 48 hours later. She had the medical knowledge and training to know that she had had a stroke, but she probably hoped that death would take her away from her pain, so she denied herself proper care for 48 hours and made her life immeasurably harder with partial disability.  She was either actively attempting suicide by lack of treatment, or she had come to the point where she had no love left for life because of a collection of unhealed wounds.

Months after they moved and were settled, my father had a mental breakdown and we intervened. He spent several weeks hospitalized for psychiatric care and recovered well. During his hospital stay, I phoned the psychiatrist treating him, and made him aware of my brother’s suicide. My parents had not disclosed that, they hid it. Suicide has the shadow of shame that extends far beyond the damage of losing a child, yet they didn’t tell his doctors about that important and most challenging part of his life.

Their deaths, decades later, brought them peace and freedom from both physical pain, but also the pain and anger that they carried in their souls until their last breath exhaled.

When we parent, we teach by example in two ways: We teach how to be and how not to be. When our son died in a firefighter training accident five years after my brother’s suicide, I quickly resolved to not be what my parents had become through their loss. I resolved to heal the pain to the smallest possible scar on my soul, to come back to loving life fully, to forgive those who failed my son, and to forgive the Universe and life itself.

Your soul will heal itself naturally, over time, but only if you can resolve and extinguish the cancer of anger over the loss. If anger remains unresolved, it will consume most or all of the love that naturally collects in your soul.

One of the sources of anger will be the sense that because of grief you will never be the same as you were before grief. That’s a reality that you must come to accept so that you can grow your soul around the loss of a loved one. The closing of the wound in your soul needs love, self love and gathered love, to fill that void with good memories and examples of love. That filling of the void removes all space for the cancer of anger to take root.

My cheek is missing a big deep elliptical chunk of flesh, yet there is only a tiny insignificant visible physical scar. There are invisible scars on my soul from being angry at a diagnosis of cancer, angry at the inconvenience, angry that it will hang over me in some way for life. Those angry patches have been healed with gratitude and love. I love the technology and skill than heeled me and removed a melanoma that would try to kill me. I love that it was caught early, I feel guilty at times that my brush with cancer was so simple and quick that I shy away from calling myself a cancer survivor.

You must make the choice to battle the anger from your grief. Some people will never do it, some sadly are simply too wounded and broken to ever do it, and some just run out of time to do it.

We are here to love life, to love each other. Love is what transforms the existence we are born to into a life that we love living. In all parts of life, anger is the enemy of the love we collect in our soul, and grief creates the opportunity for that cancer of anger to take hold.

Not just in grief and loss, but your life and those around you will be enhanced if you come to understand anger as an enemy of your soul. I’ve been told that anger motivates action, without anger in politics for example we would never accomplish change. I disagree and reject that thinking. We must see a greater love of life as the motivation and never allow anger to infect us for longer than it must.

Be well, seek peace, find growth through love rather than anger.

Timelines of Grief

Four to six weeks after a death brings an emptiness and isolation to those closest to the death. Thus begins the dangerous times of grief when only the strongest still surround us.

There are emotional traps in grief built on perceived “normal” timelines for healing. A large part of this issue is that many see grief as a series of stages that result in some form of healing back to “normal”.

Your grief, as exhausting and overwhelming as you will find it, will often exhaust and overwhelm well meaning family and friends trying to surround and help you to heal. Without judgment I need to tell you that your grief will redefine most of the personal relationships that you have with family and friends.  

The early social mechanics of death, specifically funerals and celebrations of life, have evolved to bring us together to help share this journey into grief. These events generally happen at a time when we are emotionally numb and in shock, and our numbness is expected by those on the periphery of your grief.  A compassionate circle of support forms around us.

Typically around week three, the circle of support begins to move their focus back to their own busy lives. At about the same time, our numbness is receding and the harsh reality of the finality of this death. Our efforts to begin to unwind a life and resolve an estate are overwhelming as we struggle to find healing. Our own pain becomes a very heavy and often depressing burden. This gives rise to anger, and combined with our exhaustion we can become very reactive and hyper sensitive to what people say and do, and also to what they don’t do. An our well meaning friends are exhausted trying to help us as we only seem to sink deeper into the swamp of early grief.

As a result, by about six weeks, an isolating vacuum often forms around us and we are left mostly alone with our grief. People we see casually, even good friends return to other social activities. Weeks later, they may check back in, or bump into us on the street. They often expect us to be more healed and “normal” than we appear to them. If we sense that, we can begin to feel their disappointment and our own failure in grief, because our timeline of grief doesn’t somehow follow someone’s perception of what grief should be.

We find these expectations of timelines in many parts of society. How much paid time off does a company grant for bereavement? It’s never going to be enough in the case of loss of a child or a spouse. Going back to work might be an excellent thing to do, so long as work can adapt to your random emotional lack of availability to concentrate on a job. We might not want a surgeon or a pilot who could become emotionally overwhelmed by grief at a moment’s notice, but in the first six months of grief, sometimes much longer, we can be easily triggered to uselessness. There I go, setting an expectation of normalcy at six months when I can have no idea how long it will take me, or you to become fully functional all the time.

In my case, I owned a company and had a business to run. I had to get back to work. The reality is that in the first few years I was more creative, focused and technically productive than at most other times in my business, but looking back I also made a bunch of bad judgment calls. Had I been in a career working for others, those bad judgments would likely have cost me my job.

One reality is that grief is changing us; we are no longer the same friend we once were, and we might change shapes every time someone sees us again. Your friends feel they must tip-toe around your grief to avoid causing you hurt accidentally. You feel hurt because they don’t ask the significant questions anymore. You begin to repel each other socially, rather than the natural attraction you once shared.

These changes and differences are magnified within a marriage as two partners will grieve the same death in completely different ways and on completely different timelines.

Simplistically, your friends and family want you back, but because you grieve you are no longer the same you.  We became much closer to a few casual friends and much more casual with most of what we would have called our good friends. As I look back, the new deep bonds are mostly with people who have each, and as couples grieved complex and untimely losses. They were experienced in grief, and had now perceived timelines. Most importantly, they were fearless in conversations.

We tend to see death as failure, rather than inevitable.  This causes us to see grief in a negative context, as a part of that failure. There are parts of every death that may take years to resolve fully to comfort, things that will bring tears decades later. These are not failures, they are proof that love endures long after death.

To avoid the sense of failure, we really need to remove the perceived timelines from grief, except the timeline to extinguish anger from grief. Anger becomes the focal point of our pain, and that anger is what we need to eliminate as quickly as reasonably possible.

To avoid the sense of failure, we need to remove the stigma that showing emotion is weakness, that tears are a sign of not being whole, that somehow we expected those grieving to be “more normal” by now. The grieving can’t handle those pressures and will retreat into isolation if they sense them.

If you had a friend who suffered serious burns, would you still love them? Would you come to accept their scars? Would you be seen at a public event with them? Everyone knows how they would answer this question.  

Your friend who is grieving has suffered a catastrophic injury to their soul, but you can’t see that injury, you must get close enough feel it. Only the closest of friends will see all of your scars, only the ones you trust the most. Writing about grief, I write about my scars. I know that very few people who are grieving will write back or comment, because to do so will show me and others their scars.

I continue to write, hoping that people who are isolated in grief by the injuries to their souls might feel less alone, more comfortable, have less sense of failure, and see whatever their current state as something natural and changing.

The underlying beauty of grief is that it proves that we know how to love well and deeply. In that thought is the hope that you can find your way to remember to love yourself again and return to loving your life and those lives around you, at your pace, in your time and not on some timeline of something someone else calls normal.

Be well and peaceful, walk slowly through grief, but always toward the light of your own life.